Aguirre-Sacasa, Roberto (Executive producer). Chilling Adventures of Sabrina [Television series]. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Television, October 2018.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a two-season web television series distributed on Netflix. It stars Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as her aunts, Chance Perdomo as her cousin, Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson as her best friends, and Ross Lynch as her boyfriend. This review covers the first season, which was released on October 26, 2018.
Sabrina Spellman, orphan daughter of a warlock and a mortal, struggles to maintain her mortal humanity while gaining power as a witch. She carefully navigates two worlds—the mortal world of her human friends, charming boyfriend, and Baxter High; and the supernatural world of her paternal family, her budding magical abilities, and the Academy of Unseen Arts—all while battling mysterious sinister forces coming after her loved ones.
Spoilers abound after the cut!
Sabrina’s parents were killed in a plane crash when she was a baby. She has been raised by her witch aunts, Hilda and Zelda, who are motherly and stern respectively. She also lives with her cousin Ambrose, who is a pansexual warlock of color. Sabrina loves her family and is nurtured well by them. Her 16th birthday is fast approaching; she is expected to undergo a Dark Baptism wherein she leaves behind her mortal friends and gives her life to Satan in exchange for magical powers and immortality.
While Sabrina loves her family and delights in learning magic, she is also devoted to her mortal friends and enjoys spending time in the mortal world. She is in love with her boyfriend Harvey and fiercely loyal to her best friends Roz and Susie. After questioning and soul searching, she decides to forego her Dark Baptism and ends up going to both schools and developing her magic talents while remaining half-mortal and keeping her friends and boyfriend.
Throughout the first season, Sabrina and her friends are attacked again and again by evil forces, she is hazed by three powerful witches called the Weird Sisters, and she is constantly undermined by Satan’s recruiters who are trying to force her to go through with her Dark Baptism.
Of particular interest to this blog are Ambrose and Susie. Ambrose’s sexuality is considered natural and healthy in his community. He identifies as pansexual and spends most of the first season in love with another warlock. He also participates in an orgy with both witches and warlocks; polyamory is also normalized. It’s somewhat unusual to see a male pansexual character and rarer still to see a man of color being attracted to multiple genders. I found this character refreshing, funny, and complex.
Susie’s sexuality and gender are both uncertain. Susie is taunted by the jocks at school, called queerantagonistic slurs and assaulted. For several episodes I wasn’t sure if Susie was a tomboy, a butch lesbian, or transmasculine. Susie’s friends and family use she/her pronouns but it gradually becomes clear that Susie is transmasculine and probably nonbinary. When Roz’s Nana calls Susie a “handsome young man” and uses he/him pronouns, Susie’s face lights up with joy. I found this character beautifully complicated and thought the portrayal of gender confusion and dysphoria was well done.
By far the standout actor in my opinion is Kiernan Shipka. Her portrayal of Sabrina is layered and engaging, and she shines as she flexes her considerable acting skills, especially her nuanced facial expressions. That said, the entire cast is excellent, with talented actors in perfectly chosen roles. Of note is Lachlan Watson as Sabrina’s friend Susie; Watson uses their life experiences and nonbinary gender identity to bring pathos and authenticity to Susie’s gender journey.
The world of Greendale is at once unpretentious and thrilling, with the mortal characters overwhelmingly wholesome and the witch/warlock characters brimming with sexual energy and dark gothic ambiance. It’s difficult to place the time period: the mortal characters have the attitudes of the 1960s and the values of the 2010s, with technology from both time periods; and many of the witches and warlocks, being immortal, wear Victorian clothing but have modern appetites.
There were two things that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable: the representation of disability and the representation of race. When Roz begins to lose her sight and mourns her impending inability to read books, her friends offer slight solace but nobody informs her about audiobooks and text-to-speech programs. Does Greendale not have these technologies, even though it has cell phones and laptops? Furthermore, I was torn about Roz’s family “curse” and the “cunning” (second sight) that comes with it. Disability is not a curse, although I understand there is a deep sense of loss when somebody loses a sense. And the cunning felt a bit like the Magical Negro trope.
Additionally, two of the Weird Sisters are women of color, and I felt there were some missteps with their storyline. They call Sabrina a “half-breed,” which is a term used by white racists to insult biracial people. The term being used by people of color to describe a white girl felt really icky to me. Also, one of the Weird Sisters, Prudence, is a Black woman, and she is treated extremely poorly, though she is powerful and magnetic. Probably the worst example of this is when Sabrina teaches the Weird Sisters a lesson by hanging them. Seeing a Black woman literally lynched from a tree was shocking and upsetting.
Overall, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a good show. It’s campy, set in a gorgeous dark goth atmosphere, has a terrific lead and strong supporting characters, and has a compelling narrative. The disability and race representations are not perfect, but the disabled and POC characters are well-developed, complex, and likeable. I would cautiously recommend this show with the caveat that younger viewers may need a primer in critical media literacy, and disabled and BIPOC viewers may want to prepare themselves for some uncomfortable scenes.